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Health has been the most cherished thing of life; illness, on the other hand, impairs its enjoyment and threatens survival. Christian religious beliefs uphold and profess that God is the source of life and that, consequently, and preserving health and curing illnesses is part of His Plan. Religious practices, prayers, promises and pilgrimages undertaken by the afflicted to be cured and return to health are based on that conviction.

Vows and promises’

Recurring to a saint “specialising” in curing a certain bodily ill or even going on a pilgrimage to be returned to health to shrine usually presided by Our Lady has been a very deep-rooted practice in popular Catholicism.

People have traditionally resorted to vows or promises to seek divine intervention in the case of illness or danger. That promise always involves two actions; a costly one such as going on a pilgrimage to the shrine or chapel where Our Lady or the saint invoked is worshiped and another consisting of an offering, oparia[1], of lights or alms in order to seek the protection of the saint for the afflicted. “We have made an offering to Our Lady of Puy” was the expression used for the vow in Améscoa (N). “Opatuta daukat San Antoniori Urkiolara oiñez joatea” (I have promised St. Anthony to walk to his shrine in Urkiola) is said in Zeanuri-B in the case of a promise.

The vow is made by the afflicted themselves and, more frequently, a member of their family or close relative. The intensity of the petition was expressed in the way of performing the pilgrimage to the shire: on foot, barefooted or on their knees.

The most common offerings were traditionally oil for the votive lamp, tapers, candles and flowers to place between the image of the saint, coins put in alms boxes and stipends paid for masses to be said at the shrine.

If the afflicted was cured, a token was provided as proof that the vow had been heard and the person had recovered their health; that item became the votive offering. Until the 1970s, many of the shrines and chapel that will later be mentioned had a chapel or place in the church where votive offerings, such as crutches, orthopaedic appliances, prostheses, vessels or inscriptions on marbles or framed messages expressing their gratitude to the saint for the recovered health, were on display.

Promise to put on a religious habit

The promise to put on a religious habit for a certain period of time to petition for a family member, a son or husband to be cured was used in the past, particularly in urban settings. This promise was also made for the expected child “to be born healthily” or to give thanks for having had the child. Even though the promise was made by the mother or grandmother, it was sometimes the daughter or granddaughter who benefited from the favour would have to fulfil it when they came of age. The habit was usually worn for a year and the promise would very rarely involve putting it on for life. Throughout the length of the promise, single women who put on the habit would not go to dances.

The habit was a standard garment, usually made by the local seamstress. It covered the legs, had long sleeves, without low necklines or decorations and it was worn with a rope or leather belt around the wait. The colour was the same as the habit of the religious order or brotherhood to whose saint or devotion the promise had been made. Some habits were also worn with the insignia or badge of Our Lady or the saint in question.

Vows leading to pilgrims to shrines

Resorting to saints to ask for health had different phases throughout the 20th century, as could be seen in our surveys. The custom of resorting to vows or promises or to pilgrimages to shrines in order to obtain good health was frequent until halfway through the last century; there are currently more old people who take that step (Beasain-G, Murchante-N).

The people surveyed in Mendiola (A) noted in turn that the greater fame of the large shrines such as Lourdes in France or Fatima in Portugal has been to the detriment to other closer places of pilgrimage, such as San Victor de Gauna (A), San Antolín de Urbina (A) or San Antonio de Urkiola (B) that are increasingly less visited.

That trend was also reported by other people in the survey. In Eugi (GN), the promises made for a patient to be cured are fulfilled by climbing up to Orreaga (Roncesvalles), a hike of three and a half hours, or by going to the Chapel of S of Burdindogi in the nearby town of Iragi (N). In Aoiz (N), people continue to walk up to Roncesvalles or go down to the Shrine of Javier following the course of the River Irati. In both places, they say that some people have recently gone on pilgrimage to Lourdes.

  1. Noun oparia in José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Obras Completas. Volume I. Bilbao: La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca, 1972